Wednesday 19 September 2018

Giving credit where it’s due

This article first appeared on Malta Today

What came to be known as the Gaffarena scandal was a story broken in 2015 by Caroline Muscat, who was a senior journalist with The Sunday Times at the time.

She was the one who brought to the public’s attention the fact that Marco Gaffarena had entered into a deal with the Government which would pay him €1.65 million for part ownership of the Valletta property that Gaffarena had bought for a fraction of the price just weeks earlier. In return he received huge tracts of public land while turning a handsome profit. It was a sweet deal – for him that is.

The story led to an investigation by the Auditor General which concluded that there had been collusion between Government officials, Parliamentary Secretary Michael Falzon and Gaffarena. Dr Falzon, who was responsible for the Lands Department, resigned and the Prime Minister promised that he would go to court to rescind the contract. Although he was mocked by the PN “for taking himself to court”, and his move was derided as a sham aimed to appease his critics, this week, the court case was decided and the contract has indeed been declared null. As usual, the political parties were out in full force trying to claim credit, including the PN, which as far as I know had nothing to do with revealing the details of the story at all. On its part, the Labour party tried to spin it as some kind of noble achievement, which is a bit rich.

Obviously, this contract should never have been entered into in the first place, and it is just one of the many instances where members of the Muscat administration have entered into agreements with third parties which have turned out to be very murky, to put it mildly. However, it is also true that after a lot of media and public pressure, something concrete was done about it in the only way possible – through legal means through our Courts. At least it wasn’t swept under the carpet, as so often happens, in the hope that the public will become distracted and move on.

Of course, in an ideal world, the electorate should not have to be constantly hyper vigilant and on its guard against its own Government; it should feel that the Government is always working in the public interest, rather than in the interest of the select few who are perpetually waiting in the wings and on the look out on how to turn a tidy profit. But because human nature is ruled by greed and opportunism, those in the seat of power and those who circle around the seat of power like ravenous vultures, need to constantly be kept in check. When there are contracts which have been entered into recently, such as in the Gaffarena case, the quicker that they are publicly exposed by the Fourth Estate, the more chance there is of contesting the terms of the contract.

In cases where the contract was entered into many years ago, such as the one which granted the blanket concession to MIDI for Manoel island in the year 2000, rewinding back the clock was impossible. In this case, the activists had to work with what was already there, and negotiate with the consortium to make the best of an agreement which once again, was detrimental to the public. It is unfortunate that not enough people have appreciated the significance of what Dr Claire Bonello and Conrad Borg Manche, Mayor of the Gzira local council, have achieved by working to create a guardianship agreement for Manuel island, with certain stipulations guaranteeing public access and swimming zones and as little construction as possible on the green areas. This legal mechanism means that if these conditions are breached, MIDI can be taken to court, not just now, but for generations to come. That is real tangible action, which fights back against powerful lobbies through legal means as opposed to moaning on Facebook which might help you vent your frustration, but changes nothing.

Ultimately, the real work of holding the Government and large corporations to account lies in rolling up one’s sleeves, investigating, poring over the fine print in documents and just getting on with it.

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